Commission on the UK’s Future: Gordon Brown's report on constitutional shake-up is distinctly conservative about Scotland's place in Union – Professor Marc Weller

On Monday, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer presented the long-awaited report of the Commission on the UK’s Future, chaired by former Chancellor and Prime Minister Gordon Brown.

He had intervened in the campaign against independence in the 2014 referendum, promising significant further devolution in lieu of secession. However, the changes made by the Conservative government after the poll was over were considered by many to be insubstantial.

There was a widespread assumption that this new report would aim to relieve pressure for a further referendum by offering Scotland a more attractive alternative to independence. However, the report is not really focused on Scotland, which occupies only one of its 12 chapters – some 14 pages, shared with Wales and Northern Ireland, out of a total of 150.

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The strategy, therefore, seems to have been to offer an optimistic, overall vision for a renewed Britain, rather than focusing on the particular grievances or interests of Scotland. This might suffice, it was evidently hoped, to draw in all four nations. Much is made in the report of making politics more inclusive, fair and equitable, and restoring confidence in the overall polity. There is an emphasis on economic regeneration, and a better spread of economic opportunity and growth across the UK.

This vision may aim to steal some of the SNP’s clothes. Its case is very much based on the argument that an independent Scotland could deliver its own economic success, along with a particularly Scottish brand of social justice, human rights and equality. The report suggests Labour would deliver these values, without the risks supposedly attached to going it alone in an increasingly unstable world.

But how about the formal changes to the constitution foreseen in the report? Could these satisfy the needs and interests of the people of Scotland within the Union? The most striking element of the plan is what it does not offer. There is no restructuring of the UK into a federal-type state, where each of the four nations would constitute its own federal entity under a looser institutional roof of the Union.

The report also ignores the option of establishing an asymmetrical federation. This would leave the UK a devolved but essentially still unitary state, while Scotland would reside within it as a unique, quasi-federal subject with a highly pronounced legal identity and broad powers.

Instead, the report promises more of the same. That is to say, it offers more enhanced powers for the nations, through further devolution. Enhanced self-governance is then to be matched by increased involvement of Scotland in the decisions of the Union as a whole.

Former Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Labour leader Keir Starmer arrive for a press conference about the Commission on the UK’s Future report (Picture: Ian Forsyth/Getty Images)

A federal system would assume that several quasi-sovereign entities have come together to exercise some functions in common, through the federal constitution, while retaining most other powers. In the case of devolution, an originally all-powerful centre transfers some of its authorities to constituent parts of the state.

The centre, Westminster, remains the original seat of sovereignty and has the authority to limit the powers of the constituent units. This was made particularly evident last month in the UK Supreme Court judgment denying Holyrood’s authority to legislate for a further referendum.

Hence, this is a rather modest design. It does not reconceive the UK as a living Union of four nations that come together to fulfil certain functions, like transport, communication, monetary policy, foreign policy and defence in a balanced partnership, while leaving each to govern itself according to its particular values, history and traditions. There is no great coming together in a voluntary, constitutional compact. The overall settlement and the nations’ powers are instead still defined in Westminster’s statutes.

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The new elements on offer flow from the supposed re-invigoration of the Union’s democratic culture and economic development. Still, the report does propose some further elements meant to help overcome possible disappointment.

First, there is a retrenchment of what was already granted. The position of the Scottish Parliament is to be more firmly grounded in the constitution, its powers are to be enhanced, and the status of its members is to be elevated. In truth, this is not a major advance, but a long overdue fix.

Second, Westminster is supposed to learn to cooperate more genuinely with the devolved authorities of all nations, including the regions of England, which will also profit from devolution. Such cooperation between the centre and the nations is to be supported by a Council of Nations and Regions. However, whether or not the nations will play a stronger role in UK politics depends less on this supposedly new institution than on informal, actual practice. In fact, this body is merely a development of an already existing mechanism.

Third, Labour is pledging to replace the House of Lords with a second parliamentary chamber, an Assembly of the Nations and Regions, which is meant to safeguard the rights and interest of the Union’s constituent parts. However, in truth, it is not strictly a representative body of four constituent parts, like the US Senate or the German Bundesrat, rather it will also accommodate other entities.

Fourth, Scotland is to gain some foreign affairs powers. However, it can only exercise these in relation to matters falling within its devolved powers. Naturally, these powers will not normally touch on grand matters of international politics. The examples used in the report (cultural relations with Unesco, Nordic Council) are thus likely to disappoint nationalists. Moreover, defence, particularly nuclear, will presumably remain a matter exclusively reserved for the centre.

Overall, what is on offer is something of a half-way house. The emphasis is on generating enthusiasm for life in a rejuvenated and more accountable Britain. There is no attempt to offer a genuinely different constitutional arrangement, giving fuller expression to the identities of the nations, in particular Scotland. The document has the flavour of an effervescent design for a bouncy Britain under Labour. But its provisions for Scotland are distinctly conservative.

Marc Weller is professor of international law and international constitutional studies at the University of Cambridge

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